In the next 40 years, more than 98 million Americans will be 65 or older. As the U.S. population ages, the prevalence of persons experiencing loneliness is likely to rise, contributing to a number of negative health outcomes such as increased rates of heart disease, a weakened immune system, and cognitive decline.
Kimberley Phillips, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Trinity University, has been awarded a five-year, $1.4 million grant by the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, to study social and hormonal influences on cognitive aging through the common marmoset, a small monkey.
The marmoset—distinguished by white tufts of hair around its ears and by its banded tail—is a good candidate for the research because it forms long-term pair bonds with mates. Phillips and a team of collaborators are studying how the loss of a partner affects the marmoset, tracking changes both through non-invasive brain imaging and cognitive and behavioral assessments.
Phillips, the director of Trinity’s neuroscience program, is one of a handful of Trinity professors to ever earn an R01 grant, which are typically awarded to major research institutions. She said a main goal of this research is to improve human health through its findings.
“If my work can help to understand some of the hormonal disruption that might be happening with loneliness and how social buffering might mediate those effects and have some improvement in cognition, I think that will provide important information for improving human health in aging,” Phillips says.
The research involves separating marmosets from their partners and monitoring hormonal and cognitive changes. While the pairs are apart, the team will introduce new partners to assess the quality of that social relationship—or a means of social buffering—before the original pairs are ultimately brought back together.
The team will conduct cognitive tests, looking in particular at memory and tasks of executive function, as well as carrying out non-invasive brain imaging.
Deneese Jones, Ph.D., vice president for Academic Affairs at Trinity, said Phillips’ research is really relevant as it seeks to identify the impact of loneliness in the elderly on aging and cognition.
“The ability to understand whether social support buffers the effects of loneliness on cognitive and neuroendocrine function in aging is key to any applications that may lead toward the prevention of mental and physical decline with aging,” Jones says.
Jones said Phillips’ research puts Trinity at “the forefront” of work typically achieved at large research universities.
In addition to colleagues with the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, which is hosted by the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, Phillips is also working with colleagues from the University of California, Davis. Phillips’ research work will also include Trinity undergraduate students, who have long contributed in her lab and even been paper co-authors.
Even students who are not directly working on the marmoset research will benefit, Phillips said, as she regularly incorporates her work into classroom discussions.
This grant not only teases apart the effects of aging, Phillips said, but also examines the quality of social support on cognition.
“In some ways it probably sounds so simple,” Phillips said. “You probably know elderly people in your life who fit into different categories and you can imagine individuals who, if their long-term partner dies, they might be more likely to continue to withdraw, which would probably lead to a whole lot more negative health outcomes. As opposed to those individuals who, as they age, continue to seek out social engagements.”
Analyzing the impact of forming new social relationships—especially after a separation from a long-term partner—is, in a “nutshell,” what they’ll be doing, she said. Phillips, who was among several Trinity faculty to be recognized this August for exceptional merit, remains humble about earning the prestigious grant.
“I would not have been able to do it without my collaborators and the great support of my colleagues at Trinity, who have been fantastically supportive of my work,” Phillips says.